Are We Free Agents or Biological Computer Programs? And Does It Really Matter?

I read an interesting article that seems to show that our brains unconsciously make decisions before we are conscious of it. Some have called it the “free will” experiment and claim that it calls into question the existence of free will.

The study:

“…recorded activity in various parts of the brain. Then the subjects were presented with a computer screen on which a letter of the alphabet was flashed; these images changed every half second. They also had two buttons, one under the index finger of each hand.

The subjects were asked to press a button with either hand, and also to remember the letter that was on the screen at the moment when they decided which button to press. (They indicated this letter by pressing another button.) Button presses took place about every 22 seconds, and left and right buttons were pressed with equal frequency. At the same time, the MRI showed the location of brain activity, which could be correlated with which button was subsequently pressed.

Here’s the surprising result: the brain activity that predicted which button would be pressed began a full seven seconds before the subject was conscious of his decision to press the left or right button. The authors note, too, that there is a delay of three seconds before the MRI records neural activity since the machine detects blood oxygenation. Taking this into account, neuronal activity predicting which button would be pressed began about ten seconds before a conscious decision was made.”

This indicates that an unconscious decision was made of which button to press before the person had consciously decided which one to press.

The problem that this brings up for many people who I’ve seen comment on this study is that this indicates that we don’t have free will in making decisions. While this may seem to be the case, I think that there are some real problems in concluding this from the results given.

In the case of this study, subjects were required to make arbitrary decisions in quick succession. It would seem to me that this would give very little time for any real thought about the decision needing to be made. It is more of a split-second decision, rather than a reasoned decision.

This is an important distinction because when most of use talk about free will as it relates to decision making, we are usually talking about decisions which have a real effect on us or others.

I’ll use the following analogy.

You are walking into a building. You open the door and as you do so you sense someone coming behind you. Normally, you become consciously aware of someone behind you and you hold the door for them.

But if you are distracted, either by something around you or something on your mind, you may still be aware of someone behind you, but it hasn’t really registered consciously and so you end up not holding the door. You weren’t being rude. In this case, you didn’t really make a conscious decision not to hold the door, you just weren’t aware enough of the person behind you to be able to consciously decide to hold the door.

But, if you had been consciously aware of the person behind you and made a conscious not to hold the door, then in this case you were being rude.

I think it is in these situations where decisions have social, personal or moral effects that the whole idea of free will becomes important. The response of pressing buttons to correspond to letters appearing on a screen seems to me to be more along the lines of an innate reaction or instinct, closer to the way we put out our hands when we trip and fall. Yes, our brains have made a decision, but it isn’t much of a conscious one.

Of course, I’m not a clinical scientist, or a scientists of any kind, so I really can’t speak to the scientific implications of this particular study. What I’m concerned with here is how people and the press are interpreting these results.

We need to resist the urge to make bold claims based on results from one study. There are so many factors that need to be taken into account here that to claim that this one study shows that we have no free will is irresponsible.

Personally, I find the results of the study fascinating and I would love to see more studies along these lines, especially focusing on more complicated decision making, those kinds of decisions that require a conscious thought process to make.

Perhaps studies will eventually show that we, including the decisions we make, are no more than evolutionarily motivated machines reacting to programming deep within our genes. That everything we do is guided by selfish genes that act for their own preservation and propagation, and that free will is just the peculiar perception that our minds use to make sense of the world around us.

I tend to doubt that, but maybe I’m just engaging in wishful thinking. Either way, it really doesn’t change how we do things or how we perceive things, but it does make things much interesting and fun!


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